How does Colorado Springs now protect and invest in our parks system? It's the largest and most valuable asset that attracts tourists to visit, businesses to relocate, local companies to grow and residents to enjoy local recreation opportunities. Let's establish a funding mechanism for permanent dedicated sustainable funding for our parks system.
The chasm created by the Broadmoor land swap is a great opportunity to support our parks system. Both of us opposed the land swap ... and we believe the real issue is lack of permanent funding for our parks. The parks department's responsibilities continue to increase with maintenance, repairs, purchasing land via TOPS and planning for future population growth. According to surveys conducted for the recent Parks Master Plan, the public wants the parks department to maintain what park land we have already — and continue to keep up with population growth.
Colorado Springs ranks in the bottom third of Front Range cities for parks land per person. For our 450,000 city population, the parks assets include 17,000 acres of parks/open spaces, 100-plus miles of trails, community centers, cemeteries, golf courses, City Auditorium, Pioneers Museum and a lot more.
In 2009 and 2010, drastic cuts in parks funding occurred. Restrooms were locked, trash cans removed, pools closed and grass areas went without water and mowing. The parks department laid off 150 full-time employees and many part-time staff. We do not want to repeat what the Great Recession did to our parks. The city's plight made international news; it became awful publicity for our tourism industry and other businesses. Colorado Springs was a striking example of a community struggling to balance ideological values for smaller government and low taxes with the hard reality of discontinuing basic services.
The doom and gloom gradually faded with funding increases. This year's park budget is at 5.95 percent of the total of general sales tax dollars. But residents and tourists continue to demand more services, for fewer or no more dollars.
The Parks Board's nine volunteer members have considered partnerships with businesses, appreciated friends groups raising funds, looked at cutting back on services/raising fees, viewed land swaps and contemplated other options. At the same time, the backlog of capital improvement projects has put some of our park properties in near-jeopardy status.
Then there's the cost of watering our parks, climbing each year. Many Front Range municipalities provide water to their park systems free of charge, or at a deep discounted rate. Water costs have doubled since 2008. Parks are one of the largest water customers of Colorado Springs Utilities; today's annual water bill eats up 59 percent of the parks' operations budget.
Parks, open spaces, trails, community centers, golf courses and museums bring people together — residents and tourists alike. Colorado Springs parks are its single biggest attraction. Since we appreciate and value our parks system and it's an economic mainstay, why do we continue to cheapen the investment?
The objective is to preserve the legacy started by General Palmer 140 years ago. In the near future, an organization using its own funds will conduct surveys to learn what you, the public, will accept for permanent dedicated sustainable parks funding.
Lee Milner: "When I chose to move to Colorado Springs, I was thrilled by the proximity of the mountains to the entire city. As one of the founders of the Trails & Open Spaces (TOPS), many of us have been able to expand the parks opportunities."
Charles Castle: "I first came to Colorado Springs for a memorial service in the summer. After three days of low humidity, beautiful scenery and a drive through Garden of the Gods, I was ready to move here ... and we did the next year. Being on the Parks Board is the most enjoyable volunteer work I've ever done!"
As a community, we can do a better job of funding the parks system. Let's work together and find the best long-term solutions.
Charles Castle is a member of the Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services Advisory Board, and Lee Milner is a member of the Trails & Open Space (TOPS) Committee, but these comments are only their personal opinions. No city time or resources were used for these comments. If interested further, email CharlesCastle07@gmail.com.